As far as appraisals of achievement go, John-Michael Cortez’s is pretty honest: “Our success has been due to… decision-making over the years and policies, but it’s also been a result of dumb luck.”
Cortez is a special assistant to the mayor of Austin, Texas, a large but quirky Democrat-led metropolis in the centre of an ultra-conservative state. While the city serves as Texas’s capital, it’s long been proud to do things its own way. The tagline used by its business promotion body speaks volumes: “Keep Austin weird.” Cortez’s pride in this vision is palpable: “We created this weird, creative, artistic, slacker, laid-back vibe here.”
The city’s independent spirit, Cortez believes, helps to explain its membership of a very exclusive club. According to the Brookings Metro Monitor 2017, Austin is one of just four of the US’ 100 largest metropolitan areas to have seen increases between 2010 and 2015 in all of Brookings’s measures for inclusive growth: “economic growth,” “prosperity,” and “inclusion,” to benefit workers of all races and ethnicities. The other three are Albany, Charleston and Denver.
Brookings’s three measures, which between them factor in jobs growth, wages, productivity and more, together form a picture of the extent to which all of a city’s population is sharing in its fortunes. Cortez sums up the challenge for cities that achieve growth as “Not letting that success destroy what led us to be successful in the first place.”
So what’s the secret? We spoke to some of those responsible for the cities’ success to find out.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it
Cities need to be precise in identifying what assets they have, how they can use them, and what resources they need to make the most of what they’ve got. “The sense of place is a big factor in this, and I think mayors around the world recognise that as they improve their cities,” John Tecklenburg, Mayor of Charleston, said.
Tecklenburg pointed to a thriving local tech scene – clustered around Charleston’s nationally-hyped “silicon harbour” neighbourhood and supported in part by two incubator spaces backed by the city. In particular, this startup culture coupled with the presence of a major school – the Medical University of South Carolina – and its teaching hospital, created the conditions for a burgeoning biomedical technology industry.
“Somebody woke up about 10 years ago and realised that there’s about $200 million in medical research being funded through different grants in our medical universities,” Tecklenburg said. Now, as part of a partnership with the university, the city is building a new startup incubator specifically for biomedical tech startups with “first-class laboratory space” to help encourage the sector.
Meanwhile, Denver has identified one of its strengths as a healthy manufacturing industry. According to data from the city, almost 1,000 manufacturing businesses employ more than 20,000 people. The number of people working in the sector has grown by an average of 6% a year since 2010, set against an average of around 1% employment growth in US manufacturing as a whole.
Jeff Romine, Chief Economist for the Denver Office of Economic Development said that, with its position as the “gateway city to the Rocky Mountains,” one sector where Denver manufacturing is at an advantage is outdoor gear – ski equipment and the like. Another sector that the city noticed was sparking up was high-end food and craft beer.
“We’re never going to be a mass producer of things in the same way that some other countries or some other communities are, but what we can be doing is creating those high value, high quality products,” Romine said, “The place for us was around craft and advanced manufacturing.”
The city has been helping such businesses where it can, including with an Advanced Manufacturing Advisory Council that is focused on ensuring the city develops the right kind of skills specialist manufacturers need.
Face up to your problems
Making the most of your assets might be the nice bit of running a city. But being specific about your problems – and what you need to tackle them – is just as important.
In Denver, said Romine, the Office of Economic Development places a big emphasis on reporting its work publicly, and part of that is conducting in-depth analyses of what has worked in the past, and what hasn’t.
In 2016, for example, the city published a study into the effects of gentrification in the city. “We looked at ourselves and saw where our investments are having impacts, and where the private sector is having impacts on our community, and what those impacts might be,” Romine said, “We began to understand that there is both very positive, and in some cases, some not-so-positive outcomes from these investments.”
The study focused in particular on “involuntary displacement” of less-well off families and individuals from particular neighbourhoods, identifying at-risk locations on a district-by-district map. Since then, said Romine, the city has sought to mitigate this: “In all honesty, we’re in the midst of that work. We have got some great successes; we need to do more.”
The city launched its catchily titled Office of HOPE (Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere) in 2017, focusing on a range of policies including a voucher scheme aimed at helping poorer citizens afford pricier private housing.
In Austin, said Cortez, many citizens are also finding the city less and less affordable. But, alongside providing affordable housing, the mayor’s office is seeking to tackle the other side of the equation by boosting incomes.
Austin, Cortez said, is not short of high-end employers, the likes of Amazon and Facebook among them. But it is not untroubled by poverty, and especially wants to train workers for middle-wage, middle-skill jobs in three areas it has identified as providing a good chance to lift citizens into more prosperous lives: nursing, skilled trades such as plumbing, and mid-level IT jobs like help desk work.
The city aims to boost 10,000 people out of poverty by placing them in such professions within five years. It is directing its resources at these areas in a highly targeted way, Cortez said, otherwise: “We’re doing a lot of good things but we’re trying to do too many things.”
Meanwhile, to make sure the opportunities for newly trained workers are available, the city is taking a look at what incentives it can give to business to attract companies specifically offering these kinds of roles. “We’re not taking our foot off the gas on things like Google and Apple,” Cortez said, “they’re growing whether we like it or not.” But “our focus is on: ‘what are the types of jobs and companies that are going to create opportunities to pull people out of poverty?’”
Be agile in the face of adversity
Sometimes, a setback hits a city that’s beyond its control. The disappearance of a particular employer, for example, can hurt districts or demographics and render the local economy more unequal.
Charleston suffered such a casualty in the government sector. Back in the 1990s, amid a spate of post-cold war military downsizing, the city lost its naval base and the 25,000 jobs it supported. “That was a big hit for a city of our size,” Tecklenburg said.
Senator Ernest F. Hollings, who at the time represented South Carolina, was quick to step into action, fighting for the military and marine technology network Navalex to establish its headquarters in the city. His successful campaign helped ameliorate some of the job losses and has since paid dividends – hundreds of defence technology contractors now have a presence in Charleston, the mayor said.
Meanwhile, Austin has faced a challenge of a different kind. Its “weird vibe” may be an advantage when attracting hip startups, but it is anathema to the highly conservative forces that control much of the rest of Texas politics. Or, as Cortez puts it: “Any good policy or progress that Austin makes in improving the quality of life and prosperity of people is done despite the machinations of our state government.”
For him, the state is “not even conservative anymore, it’s part of the whole wacko movement that’s infected our country.”
For example, as a result of state-wide rules, Cortez said, the city cannot practice inclusionary zoning – a policy strategy where authorities mandate the construction of a certain proportion and location of affordable housing. While these particular circumstances are unique, in a political world increasingly polarised between urban and rural, not seeing eye-to-eye with higher levels of government is a common problem for city leaders.
But, true to Austin’s rebellious spirit, it has found ways around the issue. The city’s affordable housing strategy aims to create 135,000 affordable homes in ten years through a range of measures, from direct funding through to expanding the use of community land trusts.
None of these cities is a utopia: one could easily find plenty of failures among the successes to write about in any of them. And rival mayors might point out that each has had some of that “dumb luck” Cortez spoke of, whether it’s Austin’s long history of attracting service businesses, or Charleston’s supply of much-lauded historic buildings and thriving tourism sector.
But each city has taken a clear-eyed view of the hand it’s been dealt – good and bad – and come up with targeted policies to make the most of it. As cities face an ever more uncertain future, with industries likely to suddenly change, shrink or grow and major challenges like housing affordability hitting many places across the west, this agility is something every leader needs to cultivate.
(Picture credit: Larry Johnson)
Josh Lowe & Tom Graham